Getting to experience this has made me realize there is so much more to learning than knowing the material and getting high scores. There are different ways to show what “smart” looks like.
Shelby Jacobson is a senior at Chanhassen High School in the Eastern Carver County School District in Minnesota. While assisting in the audio/visual room during the Personalized Learning Summit, we had the opportunity to explore her experience in an environment transforming to learner-centered education.
Q: What was your education experience like before you began your freshman year?
A: How you would imagine—go to class, do the worksheet, take the test. There wasn’t anything special about it. I was learning the material I needed to learn, but I never felt a sense of: “Oh, I really want to learn this!” I always felt like going to school was what I had to do and that I might as well make the most out of it.
I felt like I was “just” a student. My teachers were nice people, but I was never connecting with them. When I can’t connect with my teachers, I can’t connect with what I’m learning. In high school—where I’ve experienced a more learner-centered approach, I have a lot of connections. My teachers are great people, I know their story, and I can talk with them on a level I never could in the traditional school setting. That’s really important to me because I’m a people-person—I want to understand, connect, and relate. That helps me move forward.
At Chanhassen High School (what we call “Chan” for short), I can develop in the places I want and need to develop. For example, my writing isn’t my strongest skill, but through extracurriculars like speech and debate and the opportunity to receive additional support by simply asking for it, I’m receiving the help I need to improve. In a traditional setting, I would be writing the same amount as I’d be working on my math and science, even though I’m already much stronger in those skills.
Q: What makes you want to lean into writing, rather than stay in your comfort zone with math and science?
A: Part of it is wanting to challenge myself, but I also recognize that I can’t be reliant on only two subjects if I’m going to succeed long-term. I am also seeking the confidence of knowing I can write well. I want to feel complete.
Q: What does complete feel like?
A: If I know I have all the building blocks, I can build my own tower however high I want to.
Q: What do you think a learner-centered environment naturally has that makes it easier to develop relationships with your educators?
A: If I want to do something, I have the option to do it. I think a lot about projects and how we are assessed. For me to take on a project, I have to talk to my teachers about how I’m going to go about doing it and what I expect to learn.
I recently did a physics project where we made a vacuum cannon that shot ping pong balls at 100mph. To be able to do that, I had to get everything approved by my teachers and walk my teacher through the plan of action we wanted to take. I got to create a different level of relationship with that teacher. To be able to do that was really cool. I guarantee where I was before, making my own vacuum-powered cannon wasn’t going to happen.
Of course, I’m not making vacuum cannons every single day, but at the same time, my teachers are always encouraging me to think about doing things I have never done before and would have never considered possible in a school setting.
Q: Take us through the logistics of this physics project. How did it all come together?
A: We had our table groups in my physics class and for our final project of the year, we had to come up with an idea that would meet the general standards presented to us. We spent at least a week determining what we wanted to take on—determining what was possible. Many of my table peers were in the robotics club, so we explored what their team would need next year for competitions. The idea of this vacuum cannon came up, and we thought, “Why not do that?”
The entire experience was a big lesson in how to work with other people, which is much more of a life skill than a “school” skill.
We brought the idea to the actual robotics team because we would need some money to put it together. What we wanted to build didn’t work with their budget, so we approached our physics teacher and asked what materials he already had that we could use. Fortunately, he had most of what we needed; we bought our own PVC pipe, and we got started.
We constructed all of it during class. We were able to design, craft, make a run to Home Depot, and everything else during our class time. We were able to do all of this by ourselves, while keeping our teachers informed of the progress we were making.
Q: As an individual, what do you believe you were able to bring to that project that other group members could benefit from?
A: Communication was a big thing on my end. I’m always working on that through my speech and debate activities. I wasn’t very good at that my freshman and sophomore year—the years where I was still coming out of my shell. That was a big thing for me as a junior in a group of three senior males. I was wondering how I was going to work with them. To me, they were just older and smarter—intimidating. But, the entire experience was a big lesson in how to work with other people, which is much more of a life skill than a “school” skill. Being able to learn that while working on a project was huge.
Q: What do you believe smart looks like?
A: As I’m getting older, I’m learning more and more that my GPA and ACT score are but one part of a bigger picture. I am gaining and strengthening a broader range of life skills. As individuals, we’re all on unique journeys, and in high school, we’re learning all of these different things that allow us to see a different way of being “smart.”
There’s traditionally been a divide where you’re either “street smart” or you’re “book smart.” Today, you have to be “life smart.” You can learn everything out of a textbook or online, but if you don’t know how to apply it, what is that going to do for you?
Q: Do you believe GPAs and ACT scores are necessary metrics for success?
A: As I’m applying to colleges, it’s hard to see it as unnecessary. I don’t think that’s right, but right now, it’s what “they” have decided is “smart.” I like to see when schools put less weight on the ACT score. Applications might ask for your GPA just to see if you’re applying yourself academically, but they lean more heavily on how you’re applying yourself in other ways like taking on extracurriculars, volunteering, or other non-academic activities.
Then, they want to know about you. Are you a caring person? On applications, you write an essay that shows how much you know as a person—what a textbook could never teach you. I wish the focus was more on that kind of stuff, but I also recognize you have to prove you are someone they want attending their university.
Q: If you were the head of admissions at a university, what would you want to see from a learner that would prove they deserved to attend your institution?
A: From my experience, I want someone who is going to work hard. Everyone has a different situation—financially, emotionally, family life—that can’t be shown in their GPA or ACT score. I would want someone who can prove they are going to take the opportunities given to them and create their own opportunities.
Right now, there are essays where you can express those characteristics in your responses. But, I think it comes back to where the learners are in life and proving what they’ve done to overcome challenges. I think they need to show they’ve branched out to the world beyond school. I catch myself sometimes getting so focused on what’s happening in school—grades, extracurriculars, and maintaining a social life—and I think there’s so much more than that. Someone who is able to recognize that, is someone I would look for.
Q: Do you feel like your peers have a similar perspective as you do in what your learner-centered environment has afforded them?
A: We have these conversations a lot. I think the people who are succeeding within the context of the traditional metrics will take a little longer to see that what they’ve learned goes beyond those scores. When I was in middle school and in a more traditional system, if I wasn’t getting high grades, I didn’t think I was very smart.
Now, when I’m doing standards-based work that allows me to make a presentation using a song, rap, poem, movie, presentation, or even write a paper, I have all of these options to show I’ve learned this broad standard. With this freedom to choose, I can use the medium that inspires me and not be stuck using a presentation technique that makes me feel stupid or incapable. Getting to experience this has made me realize there is so much more to learning than knowing the material and getting high scores. There are different ways to show what smart looks like.
I’ve been able to recognize this over the four years I’ve been at Chan High School, and I don’t think I would have had that insight in a more traditional system.